I enjoyed this book and found it to be a relatively fast read. Star Soldiers is actually an omnibus of two books set in the same universe -- Star Guard and Star Rangers.
The first book is set some time after Earth has ventured into space and made contact with the rest of the galaxy. It turns out that Earth is somewhat late to the party – space is already populated by a diverse population of space-traveling aliens, and things are fairly civilized with rules in place to help keep it that way. The agency in charge deems humans to be too disruptive and aggressive to be given free rein in space, so the only way they’re permitted to travel into space is as mercenaries for hire by other planets to help them fight wars.
This premise was questionable to me. After all, if these other races needed mercenaries, then they clearly weren’t very peaceful either, right? Maybe the idea was that the hiring races were also barbaric and aggressive and not part of the inner circle of aliens allowed to travel space freely. However, I'm pretty sure we were told that humans were one of the few species being restricted in this manner. This basic premise was covered within the first couple of pages and was never fleshed out to my satisfaction.
Nevertheless, this was a pretty fun story if you can overlook the poorly-fleshed-out premise and the lack of a detailed setup for the current political situation. We’re reading from the perspective of a single character, Kana, who is a new recruit on his first mission as a mercenary. His team was hired by rebels on a remote planet about which little is known. Naturally, things go horribly wrong, but the threat isn’t what you might expect. I found Kana to be a pretty likeable character, as were several of his teammates. The story was an entertaining adventure that started off with a bit of a mystery as to just what was going on and why. There’s some military action, and the characters struggle to survive in harsh terrain with enemies hot on their tail. There are also several previously-unknown native threats which take them by surprise on the unfamiliar planet.
I enjoyed the story all the way through, but I started to get even more caught up in it toward the end. As the true nature of what was going on became apparent, I grew increasingly eager to learn about just how things would turn out. The story wrapped up the main action, but it left a lot of questions at the end about what would happen next. Additionally, I didn’t think the details were fleshed out well. There was a lot of action, but not much in the way of world-building. We’re told things are a certain way, and we just have to accept it without knowing why. I like to understand the motivation and history behind things, so this lack of detail bothered me. I was hopeful that the second story would answer my questions about what happened next and perhaps flesh out some of the details. I had the naïve expectation that the second book would follow up where the first book left off.
As it turned out, the second book took place 4000 years later and the universe had changed a great deal. There was a very brief prologue that summarized the current state of affairs in general terms, but the immediate aftermath of the first story wasn’t discussed. Things do kind of tie back to the first book eventually, but this second story had a completely different and separate plot.
Despite my initial frustration, I became interested in the second story pretty quickly and soon relinquished my frustration over not seeing the first story continued. The second story is also told from the perspective of a single character, Kartr, who is one of a handful of survivors from a crash landing on an unknown and distant planet. The story begins immediately after the crash. This book had the more interesting characters out of the two stories, I thought. The crew of the starship consisted of people from a variety of planets and there was more interaction and banter between the characters. This made the second book more enjoyable for me even though I also thought it was the weaker of the two in terms of logic and consistency. The conclusion of the story was pretty satisfactory, if excessively coincidental and convenient, and it served as a nice wrap-up for the entire omnibus.
The second book, however, did have some significant flaws. Some of the characters were telepathic, but there weren’t any clear and definite rules about how the telepathy could be used. It seemed to me like the telepathic abilities evolved throughout the story to meet whatever the current situation was. It was constantly being used in some new way, and its usage was not always consistent even when taking into account that different characters had different levels of telepathic skill. I also thought that, in both books, there were aspects of the stories that weren’t fleshed out or explained in a very believable way. In general, it seemed like the author freely introduced things as a convenience to move the story in the desired direction and didn’t pay too terribly much attention to whether or not they were consistent or logical. Most of these instances were small, niggling things that I might have been able to overlook if there were only one or two. But they accumulated until I was feeling rather frustrated with it by the end of the omnibus.
Another issue I found, especially in the second book, was with explanations that were provided in a wishy-washy manner. When the characters were trying to figure out why something had happened, they would throw out different ideas until suddenly the main character in whose head we were living would be certain that the most recent speculation “felt right”. From this point, future events or discoveries built on the assumption that this speculation was in fact true even though there wasn’t any concrete evidence to prove it true. In the real world, sometimes people think things “feel right” (or “feel wrong”) but they’re often proven completely wrong when the facts are uncovered. In this fictional world, the main character apparently possessed an omniscient gut.